Professor Donald MacAulay

Professor Emeritus Donald MacAulay died at the age of 86 on 28 February 2017. Born in 1930, he was raised on the island of Bernera, off Lewis. Following his education at Bernera School, the Nicholson Institute in Stornoway and at Aberdeen University, where he graduated with first class honours in Celtic and English in 1953, he studied Celtic, Old English and Old Norse at Emmanuel College Cambridge, graduating in 1955. He did his National Service in the Royal Navy’s Russian language section during 1955–57. He taught in English Language and General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh (1958–60) before moving to Dublin, where he lectured in Irish at Trinity College Dublin (1960–63). In the period 1963 to 1967 he lectured in Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. In 1967 he joined the University of Aberdeen as Head of the Department of Celtic and Senior Lecturer (later Reader) in Celtic, where he remained for 24 years.

(Photograph of Professor MacAulay by Angela Catlin)

In 1991 he came to Glasgow to take up the Chair of Celtic, following in the footsteps of Angus Matheson and Derick Thomson before him. In his short tenure he introduced important changes, such as the development of courses and programmes in Celtic Civilisation, which he had previously developed in Aberdeen. These crucial innovations underpinned the later evolution and success of the department. He retired in 1996.

His innovative poetry was published in Seóbhrach as a’ Chlaich (‘Primrose out of a Stone’) (1967) and in the highly influential Nua-Bhàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems (1976), which he edited. This volume more or less defined modern Gaelic poetry for a generation. More recently his beautifully produced Deilbh is Faileasan (‘Images and Reflections’) appeared in 2008, which included a selection of previous work alongside new and unseen poems. He was editor of Scottish Gaelic Studies from 1978 to 1996, and editor of the hugely successful The Celtic Languages (CUP, 1992). Although he was deeply learned in and published on aspects of the Gaelic literary tradition, his main expertise was in the area of Gaelic linguistics, on which he wrote with unique and incisive clarity. What he said in his poem A’ Cheiste (‘The Question’) in reference to his calling as a poet could apply equally to his linguistic work:

Ghineadh dhomhsa faillean,
à spàrn dhiamhair;
dh’fhàs e tromham craobhach;
chuir mi romham gum fàsadh e dìreach.

‘A tree was for me engendered
by some mysterious striving;
its branches spread through me;
I decided it should grow undeformed.’

The sincerity and integrity evidenced here very much captures the very essence of the person, the sàrGhàidheal, the bàrd and scholar we all admired and respected so much. Donald was a humble man, a modest man whose encapturing wit and humour we all miss greatly. He was a great encourager of students, of poets and of younger scholars.

Donald is survived by his wife Ella, whom he married in 1957, their daughter, Cathlin, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Their son, Iain, died in April 2016. Further information on Professor MacAulay and his poetry, including clips of video interviews with the poet himself, can be seen at the BBC resource Làrach nam Bàrd by clicking here.

Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh


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